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Fraudulent elections, competing governments and violence: How the Kansas Constitution was born

kansas map.jpg
Kansas Historical Society
When the Kansas territory was established in 1854, it extended west all the way to Denver. The Wyandotte Constitution of 1859 not only said Kansas would be a free state, but also reduced the state’s borders to where they are today.

The state constitution itself has its roots in the bitter days of Bleeding Kansas.

The latest proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution deals with abortion, and it has generated a wave of political discontent across the state.

So it’s only fitting to recall, then, that the state constitution itself has its roots in the bitter days of Bleeding Kansas.

Kansas produced four constitutions in its journey to statehood during the 1850s, including one that permitted slavery. It was a time of rigged elections, illegal power grabs and bloodshed.

“That's one of the things about the 19th century,” said Jay Price, chairman of Wichita State’s history department and a Kansas history scholar. “It's so elegant and so refined and so vicious at exactly the same time.”

Kansas was created as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The act dictated that instead of Congress determining whether slavery would be allowed, the citizens of each territory would vote on the issue.

John Brown
Kansas Historical Society
Abolitionist John Brown was among the many settlers who poured into the Kansas Territory during the Bleeding Kansas period.

So people from outside the state, on both sides of the slavery debate, poured into Kansas ahead of the vote. That included a fervent abolitionist by the name of John Brown.

Historians say perhaps as many as 200 people on both sides of the issue were murdered for political reasons during this period. Amid the violence, both pro- and anti-slavery legislatures were created.

And Price said both drafted constitutions.

“And so then now we have these two rival governments each claiming to be the voice of the people,” Price said. “And you could see where those tensions are not going to go real well.”

Congress rejected both constitutions and told Kansas to try again. By this time, Price said, anti-slavery forces had taken control of state government.

“Free Staters have swept into the territorial legislature,” he said.

“And so now there's a third constitutional convention this time in Leavenworth, which is one of the more, for that era, radical of the constitutions.”

The Leavenworth Constitution in 1858 prohibited slavery and also granted the right to vote to free African-Americans. It also provided a framework for women’s rights.

Congress, still controlled by pro-slavery politicians, turned it down.

The final attempt one year later, the Wyandotte Constitution, also banned slavery but removed the language dealing with suffrage for African-Americans.

Kansas Historical Society
The Wyandotte Constitution was the fourth constitution proposed by various Kansas territorial legislatures during the 1850s. It later become the official state constitution.

“As one of my colleagues has put it, free did not mean welcome,” Price said. “And there is a sense that elements of the free state movement were wanting to restrict slavery because they didn't want people of color in state period, slave or free.”

Passage of the Wyandotte Constitution – which also reduced the size of the Kansas territory to its current shape – was only assured in Washington after four Southern states seceded from the Union and withdrew their senators.

The remaining Senators approved the bill on Jan. 21, 1861. Eight days later, President James Buchanan signed it into law and Kansas became the nation’s 34th state.

Since then, the state constitution has been amended nearly 100 times. Some of the changes have been pretty dry, like how to calculate the tax on boats.

Many others, though, have dealt with the major social issues of the day, like prohibition, women’s suffrage, gambling, gay marriage, the right to bear arms, and now, abortion.

Price said many of the amendments go deeper than the issue on the ballot. They also represent how Kansas sees itself and how it wants to be seen by the rest of the country.

“These are expressions of identity,” Price said. “And I think maybe that's the key thing that when you’re talking about slavery, you're talking about temperance, or you're talking about abortion today, these are identity issues.

“I mean, you don't have big constitutional amendment dealing with, you know, road construction.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.